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Datum objave: 09.09.2020

Groomed to Be President

JFK Coming of Age in the American Century, 1917-1956

Groomed to Be President

Coming of Age in the American Century, 1917-1956

By Fredrik Logevall

He ensorcells us still. They all do, the whole impossibly glamorous, snakebit Kennedy tribe, from the Irish Catholic famine refugees scrambling for footing in forbiddingly Protestant 19th-century Boston to the imperious patriarch building a fabulous fortune while pushing his children to the summits of power and fame in 20th-century America, until second son John Fitzgerald Kennedy briefly bestrode the world as president of the United States — before becoming the third of the patriarch’s four ill-starred offspring to suffer a violent, premature death.

Other authors, conspicuously Robert Dallek in his 2003 biography of Kennedy, have ably chronicled this epic saga, but none has told the tale of the 35th president’s formative years better or more thoroughly than the Harvard history professor Fredrik Logevall in “JFK,” the first of two projected volumes. Here he brings the story up through Kennedy’s failed bid for the Democratic vice-presidential nomination in 1956, setting the stage for his elevation to the presidency four years later.

Inevitably, the patriarch dominates the first half of the book. Colossally wealthy by his mid-30s, Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. reared the nine Kennedy siblings in a cocoon of sybaritic luxury, flagrant privilege and frequently libertine license. But he was also solicitous, supportive and, it must be acknowledged, seriously and high-mindedly patriotic. With his sons in particular he encouraged — indeed demanded — their vaulting political ambitions. “Say what one will about Joseph P. Kennedy,” Logevall concludes, “it’s not every multimillionaire father who takes such broad interest in his children, who believes in them so fervently and who, together with his wife, instills in them, from a young age, a firm commitment to public service.”
Among the several myths that Logevall debunks is the notion that Jack Kennedy turned to a political career only after the favored first son, Joe Jr., supposedly the principal vessel for the family’s political aspirations, was killed in action over southern England in 1944. All to the contrary, Logevall meticulously documents Jack’s steadily deepening interest in politics — especially geopolitics — beginning in early childhood. He “gobbled books,” his mother recollected; his sister Eunice remembered him as the only family member “who looked things up.” (His reading while bivouacked in the Solomon Islands during World War II was Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.”) From an early age, and increasingly over time, Logevall repeatedly insists, Kennedy read widely and well, thought for himself, decided for himself, laid out his own life course and in countless ways was his own man and no one else’s, assuredly not his father’s.
Logevall painstakingly reconstructs Kennedy’s several youthful trips abroad, where he sowed some wild oats, to be sure (there is plenty of that in these pages, more than enough fornicating and philandering to sate even the most prurient reader’s taste), but more consequentially, made use of his father’s abundant connections to interview statesmen and political leaders in Europe and beyond. Toward the end of a seven-month junket that ranged from Moscow to Jerusalem, the 22-year-old Kennedy, Zelig-like, was in Berlin in August 1939, accurately predicting the imminent outbreak of war, and shortly thereafter sitting in the visitors’ gallery at Westminster to witness Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain proclaim Britain’s belligerency. Everywhere he took notes and everywhere he grew in wisdom and conviction. “It was the kind of exposure and training,” Logevall writes, “that no future president since John Quincy Adams had enjoyed at so young an age.”

A fastidiously diligent researcher, Logevall pays scrupulous attention to Jack’s prep school and college essays, including a close reading of the Harvard senior paper that became Kennedy’s first book, “Why England Slept,” which analyzed the timidity of Britain’s political class in the face of indifferent or hostile public opinion. Logevall pronounces it a “thoughtful and cogent … original contribution to knowledge.” He later describes Kennedy’s best-selling “Profiles in Courage” (whose actual authorship has long been contested) as an “ode to the art of politics” that, he valuably reminds us, “extols both compromise and courage.” From all the carefully marshaled evidence a picture emerges of an uncommonly curious, sometimes frivolous but increasingly earnest young man on his way to shaping an informed, cleareyed, unsentimental sense of the world and his nation’s place in it.
And its place in history. Kennedy’s generation came of age in the mid-20th century’s agonizingly long season of Great Depression and world war. The former touched the Kennedys lightly if at all. But the latter blighted the father’s diplomatic career, claimed the life of the eldest son and made a hero out of the commander of PT-109. It also catalyzed Jack Kennedy’s comprehension of what was at stake in the modern contest of nations, and deepened his skepticism about the utility of war itself, especially after the advent of nuclear weapons. It instructed him about the distinctive characteristics of his allotted historical moment, and left him convinced that the time had urgently arrived when America had to cast off its isolationist legacy and don the mantle of global leadership. In this he decidedly detached himself from the views to which his father so unremittingly clung.

This is the heart of this richly detailed and instructive book. And it is where Logevall’s expertise as a Pulitzer Prize-winning scholar of international relations comes advantageously into play — and where his book’s subtitle, “Coming of Age in the American Century,” is brought tellingly into focus. To the biographer’s insights he adds the historian’s perspectives about the several episodes in which the young Kennedy’s worldview took shape: his father’s tortured tenure as ambassador in London while the Munich crisis unfolded and the debate over “appeasement” took on ugly intensity; the American commitment to sweeping international restructuring at war’s end; the vexing role of domestic politics — notably the red-baiting antics of Senator Joseph McCarthy — in the nascent Cold War; and the postwar struggles over decolonization, not least in Indochina, where Congressman Kennedy in 1951 saw at first hand the futility of France’s effort to crush Vietnam’s determination to be independent.

Logevall artfully melds the biographical and historical approaches. Though crafted as a kind of bildungsroman, “JFK” delivers something more than the traditional story of the callow wastrel’s maturation into the admirable adult. Here phylogeny closely replicates ontogeny. John F. Kennedy’s individual journey of separation from his father’s isolationism tracked the progression of the United States in midcentury from peripheral international player to hegemon. The global stage where a president could bend the arc of world history remained Kennedy’s preferred arena and the presidency his obsession. The domestic issues that lay in a state governor’s province he once dismissed as “little more than ‘deciding on sewer contracts.’” This was the mind-set he brought to the White House, and in some ways this entire book can be read as an elaborate prolegomenon to Kennedy’s most important foreign policy address, at American University in June 1963, where he urged a realistic reappraisal of the Cold War and laid the foundations for the hotly contested policy that became known as détente.

When America’s Cold War Strategy Turned Corrupt
But that’s getting ahead of the story. How Logevall will deal with Kennedy’s presidency remains to be seen, though there are more than a few hints here. The author declares in his preface his commitment “to play it straight, to look the man right in the eye, not up in adulation or down in disdain.” But there is much more adulation than disdain here, as when he praises Kennedy’s “magnetic leadership,” while at many controversial points — Kennedy’s relations with Joseph McCarthy, for example, or the authorship of “Profiles in Courage” — treating him perhaps a trifle too generously. It looks as if even this sober scholar has been at least a little ensorcelled. And who among us would not welcome some of that Kennedy-esque enchantment now — not to mention some of his knowledgeable and enlightened statecraft?

David M. Kennedy is a professor emeritus of history at Stanford University and the author of “Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945,” which received the Pulitzer Prize for history in 2000.

Coming of Age in the American Century, 1917-1956
By Fredrik Logevall
Illustrated. 816 pp. Random House. $40.

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